Later Start to School Day Helps, Education Secretary Says

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that starting the school day later in the morning could help teenagers get the most from their classroom time, touting a recent study showing that a later start to the school day makes students refreshed — and that well-rested students are ready students.

Duncan said that school districts should consider starting school day later and should consider delaying the first bell, but he noted that it was up to local leaders to make those decisions on their own. He added that school districts would still be free to set their own start times, according to Philip Elliott of The Associated Press.

Duncan, who is the former chief of Chicago Public Schools, said that "there's lots of research and common sense that lots of teens struggle to get up … to get on the bus."

Research backs up Duncan's worries about student sleep patterns and academic achievement. "Children who sleep poorly are doing more poorly on academic performance," said Joseph Buckhalt, a distinguished professor at Auburn University's College of Education.

Kyla Wahlstrom, director at the University of Minnesota's Center for Applied Research and Education Improvement, said that a good night of sleep makes teens ready students. Wahlstrom, who has studied teenagers' sleep cycles, brains and learning for the last 17 year, said that "teen brains have a different biology."

Wahlstrom's research concludes that schools must have students arrive rested. Her study found that absenteeism, tardiness, depression, obesity, drop-out rates and even auto accidents all decline when students head to school after a good night of sleep.

Schools are starting to take notice. Take, for instance, Virginia's Fairfax County Public Schools. Most medical professionals recommend between 8.5 and 9.5 hours of sleep for students. The Fairfax district surveyed students in grades 8, 10 and 12 and found two-thirds of them were sleeping seven hours or less each school night. Among high school seniors, 84 percent routinely slept less than seven hours each night during the 2011 survey.

In 2013, the Fairfax school district and the Children's National Medical Center's Division of Sleep Medicine formed a partnership to study student's nighttime habits. The district, which is the 11th largest in the country, is planning to start school day at 8 a.m. or later in coming years.

"Teens have a different body clock," said Terra Ziporyn Snider, the co-founder of Start School Later, a grassroots advocacy group that has pushed schools for delayed bells. "You don't run schools at a time when kids aren't ready to learn."

Changing school schedules is difficult because of challenges relating to after school activities, including extracurricular activities, interscholastic sports and jobs for teenagers. Also, the challenge of transporting students to these activities — as well as classes — often is cited as a reason high school days begin at dawn and end mid-afternoon.

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